School tuck shops push healthy foods

Fish-and-chip-Friday: For many at my primary school it meant one day a week where we swapped fruit and homemade sandwiches for deep fried delight.

Almost two decades later, obesity statistics have worsened, and experts worry that New Zealand's lack of commitment to obesity prevention is failing Kiwi kids.

This continued upward trend compares unfavourably with many OECD countries, Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health at the University of Auckland, Boyd Swinburn, said, "including even the United States, where overweight and obesity among children is either flattening or decreasing. Children and their parents are clearly losing the battle of the bulge".

In an attempt to curb this epidemic, schools are pushing healthier alternatives to replace pies and processed foods that too often become last-minute meal options.

Subway's school lunch programme delivers to more than 100 schools nationally. A survey of 20 primary schools revealed other health-conscious options - such as sushi and Pita Pit - were substituting the hot chips and chocolate donuts of previous generations. Fish and chips are long gone.

Owairaka District School in Mt Albert, Auckland, is an exemplary self-dubbed "green school", with vegetable gardens, chickens, and cooking classes.

"When I arrived here years ago, there was a tuck shop, and kids used to line up and buy all sorts of junk food. The behaviour wasn't that good. I've found that [healthy eating] has been a turning point," principal Diana Tregoweth said.

The decile two school, with a roll of almost 400 and a high proportion of Pacific Island and Maori students, worked with families to promote healthy eating and living.

All new students are given a lunch box and healthy eating guide. About twice a term the school puts on $2 sandwich days, using produce grown on the school grounds.

Parents volunteer with the Garden to Table programme; a fortnightly workshop where the children tend to the vegetable gardens, harvest produce, and then cook lunch at school.

"I absolutely love the [Garden to Table] programme. One, the children get a meal. But we're also teaching them wonderful life skills," Tregoweth said.

Other schools are catching on, albeit at a lesser level.

Island Bay School in Wellington offered sushi once a week, and occasionally provided mini pizzas, "if there's a fundraiser".

Newlands Primary, also in Wellington, said Subway provided "something different" for the children and was hassle-free for the school office.

Schools varied between ordering lunches daily, weekly, or monthly, as in the case of semi-rural schools such as Waiau Pa School, southwest of Auckland. "The kids like Subway. It's quite good value. You can get a sandwich and a cookie for $5 or $6," Waiau said.

Many schools with canteens, such as Nayland Primary just out of Nelson, offered "healthy" Heart Foundation-approved foods and beverages, and others had parents who volunteered to make food.

A group of parents with children at St Matthews in Hastings brought cooked meals to school each Friday. "They might make mac and cheese, it's very popular. They've got to run [recipes] past the school to make sure that what they're providing is a healthy choice."

Auckland dietitian MaryRose Spence said schools should be proud of providing healthy options - "They've got to know how it's linked up with learning."

New Zealand is the third fattest of the OECD countries (behind the United States and Mexico), but Spence said children were not to blame for their weight problems; adults were the ones who need educating.

"We've got to remember that children don't do the shopping. It's adults who are responsible for how their children eat. In the situation of overweight parents, the likelihood of overweight children is significantly increased," she said.

"I think that back in the good old days when we would always have a sandwich for lunch there's nothing wrong with that. A filled roll should always be the basis of a lunch. But there are so many bought options now, and mum and dad are time poor."

Wellington mothers Jane Bornholdt and Rachel Ebbitt both have children at primary school, and understood the morning rush associated with lunch-making.

"We wanted children to have some variety with their lunches, instead of them having sandwiches every day of the week, it would be good to give parents a day off while providing something nutritious, fresh and tasty. So we hit upon sushi," Bornholdt said.

Wrap it Up started in 2010 with Bornholdt and Ebbitt rolling their own sushi and delivering it to Kilbirnie School in Wellington once a week.

They now cater to 26 primary and intermediate schools in the Wellington region.

Orders and payments could be made online, which saved time for both parents and schools.

A study published in October 2013 in Obesity Reviews found "disinvestment in obesity prevention and failure to enact any major healthy food policies" over the last 20 years had contributed to New Zealand's worsening statistics.

The Ministry of Health's New Zealand health survey 2012-2013 showed 1.2 million New Zealanders (31 per cent) are obese, up from 29 per cent the previous year.

Childhood obesity had also increased with around 85,000 children (11 per cent) aged between 2 and 14 now considered obese.

But Spence said, "We don't have to ask the Government for everything. If you look around at the initiatives put in place for obesity, there's nothing that stands out. I believe we can't give a general message to everyone, because everyone is different. What is satisfying for one group of people might not be for another."

At the end of the day, the onus was on parents and caregivers.

A Heart Foundation and Ministry of Health collaboration, called Fuelled for Life, provided a food and beverage classification system to encourage healthy eating for young people.

Manager Sally Hughes said items were classified as suitable for "everyday, sometimes, and occasionally". A new "fresh made" category covered homemade meals that could be produced off site and brought into schools.

Schools and early childhood centres that joined the programme received resources on healthy eating as well as a "buyers guide" listing categorised products available to order for canteens.

"It makes it really easy for people to decide whether something is healthy or not," Hughes said.

About half of New Zealand primary schools are signed up to Fuel for Life, but Hughes said it was too early to measure any impact.

"There's still quite a long way to go. In an education environment where the evidence is so clear that good nutrition leads to better learning, schools have a responsibility to promote and facilitate healthy eating habits."

With Fish-and-chip-Friday in mind, I called my old primary school to ask what was on offer these days. Subway and sushi, the office lady said.

"We've never done fish and chips on a regular basis."

Sunday Star Times